. . . but God meant it for good

A round-up of encouraging news stories from the UK and overseas during the coronavirus pandemic

Staying positive

‘How can you stay so positive in the middle of all this?’ This was a question put to one of the Caring For Life (CFL) staff by a gentleman he has been supporting remotely during lockdown.

What a wonderful question! The staff member was able to explain that his confidence in his Saviour is what gives him hope and positivity regardless of life’s circumstances. The gentleman, who would have previously described himself as quite an enthusiastic atheist, then went on to ask more about this Saviour and the Bible.

This is one of many examples from recent weeks of God touching the hearts of vulnerable and isolated individuals with the reality of His presence in these most frightening and difficult of days.

Many of the folk who CFL care for exist without the support of family or friends. Some have people around them who are unhelpful. Many others have those that cause them great distress. Some simply have no-one. At CFL they have the great privilege of becoming friends and family to those they support. One of their beneficiaries expressed this beautifully when he said: ‘I didn’t have real love parents. Caring For Life is my first real love family.’

Gayle Pennant said: ‘We are thankful to God for the many opportunities we have had to share Jesus’ love with the people in our care at this very tough time. We’ve had people ask for prayer who have never asked before. We’ve had some tell us that they are praying for the first time in their lives. A number of our beneficiaries, both those who are and those who aren’t Christians, have been enjoying reading through the book of John and using specially designed, accessible Bible reading notes, and have been chatting enthusiastically about this to their support workers.

‘One lady who can’t go out told us that she spends ten minutes every day sitting on a chair at her back door looking at the sky and the clouds and reminding herself that we have a great big God who loves us and is with us.’

A gentleman who only very recently began receiving support and is very glad to have friends around him at the minute. He summarised the situation beautifully, saying: ‘We will get through this and we will get through it together but, more importantly, we will get through it with God.’

Caring for Life

More listeners online

Just four weeks ago Deniz, an OM worker in London, had approximately 50 people from the Turkish community attending a church he leads, but this rose to over 1,600 once the church had to close. With so many people tuning into the live streaming of their service, he described this lockdown as ‘one of the biggest opportunities we have to reach unreached people with the gospel’.

Deniz continued: ‘I have never been busier, with telephone calls, new social media, writing and recording online sessions.’ New situations are arising all the time and Deniz knows he needs God’s wisdom as he adapts and responds quickly.

Some people in the Turkish community are afraid. The family of one person who caught Covid-19 were panicking. The long-term effects on the congregation could be that people don’t want to meet up again once restrictions are over. Fearful of the consequences of gathering together, ‘this would be a huge struggle for the church’, Deniz commented.

But Deniz sees this as an opportunity to be a voice of peace, hope and reassurance; now more than ever, with so many of the Turkish community listening to the services his church is streaming online. Many in the Turkish community where Deniz serves have unexpected time on their hands. ‘Over 80% of the church are barbers,’ he said. ‘Most have hung up their clippers for the next few months.’ Although it means a lack of income, Deniz notices that many are remaining positive and embracing this opportunity to rest, spend time with their families and engage with God.

‘I cannot express the hunger people have for God’s word at the moment’, Deniz says with great joy, referring to the Bible studies he is hosting over video call. ‘We have new people joining every day.’ Deniz is confident that God is at work, taking a challenging situation and shaping it for His glory.

Operation Mobilisation

Ugandan children: more!

Emmauel Mukeshimana, a Langham scholar, wrote about the way his children have responded positively to having to worship at home as a family.

‘This last Sunday was the first day of family service due to the ban of public gathering. Our service went on very well in which we did a duplication of what we do at church where all members of the family participated. What amazed me is that the young ones enjoyed it so much to the extent that every morning they are knocking on our bedroom door asking whether we are having our church service again!’


Canada: silver linings

A Canadian hospital network claims it is ‘heartbroken’ after it took the decision to no longer administer euthanasia during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hamilton Health Sciences, which owns ten medical sites, and the Champlain Regional Medical Assistance in Dying Network have stopped their services during the current crisis.

The Christian Institute

Hope online

Almost 5,000 people feeling anxiety or despair due to the coronavirus pandemic have turned to a new website which is offering hope for those affected by the lockdown.

Lookforhope.org is a website set up to help people connect with the Christian faith and find hope during this difficult time. Just ten days after the new website was launched, it has already had over 13,000 individual page views from almost 5,000 visitors.

The Revd Tim Dennis, curate in the parish of Winklebury and Worting in Basingstoke, recognised the need for the website when he posted a blog on social media which reflected on his own experience during the lockdown. Tim was taken aback by the response he had to his blog, and realised that people were crying out for messages of hope relevant to their own experience. And so, with no budget, he taught himself web design and set up the lookforhope.org website in a matter of days.

Visitors to the website have access to an array of thought-provoking articles and videos about life in lockdown. Written by a mix of Christian ministers and lay people from different backgrounds, the blogs reflect on the experience of contending with the challenges presented by coronavirus, and offer a message of hope despite the pandemic.

Across the country people are facing difficult and uncertain times, many are suffering and thousands have lost loved ones. While lives have been drastically changed in the short-term, there is likely to be a much longer-term impact too.

As well as blogs and videos, the website has a contact function so that people looking for support can be put in touch with their local Christian community.


Tech training

Community in a Crisis was set up in response to Covid-19 and a need from churches to help them move online during the time that church buildings are closed.

It has been offering multi-platform online training to get churches online. The training includes: live streaming, Facebook Live, Zoom, pre-recorded videos or any combination.

Over 350 churches have received training and accessed materials so far. For churches that need more help there have been drop-in tech sessions each week, one specifically for Zoom. Another has been in partnership with Church Service Planner – a new website that helps someone easily create online services.


Accessing cash support

Community workers across the UK are receiving training to help vulnerable people access Covid-19 financial support, in response to fears that millions could be plunged into crisis because they can’t use the Internet to find crucial help.

The COVID Cash Course has been set up by the Just Finance Foundation (JFF) – part of the Church Urban Fund – to help the most marginalised people in the country negotiate the maze of new rules, regulations and benefits as a result of the pandemic.

While there is a lot of information available online, more than a million people don’t use the Internet (Exploring the UK’s Digital Divide, ONS, 2018). The JFF says there are many more who can get online, but lack the skills needed to find the support available to them.

Just Finance Foundation

Is this how introverts feel when life is normal…?

We were four weeks into lockdown, and I had never felt more of an extrovert. The move to home working, the sudden contraction of my social life, the complete absence of church activities, and the impromptu decampment to my parents’ house meant that – like most people – my world had shrunk dramatically.

The condition of being generally under-stimulated soon left me feeling flat; not quite myself; running at less than 100%. And that’s when I had one of those dawning moments of realisation. Maybe this was something akin to how my more introverted friends felt when life is ‘normal’ – too often generally over-stimulated, and therefore operating at less than 100%.

In her 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain makes the case that the world is set up for an ‘extrovert ideal’. Take the office environment at The Good Book Company (TGBC) as an example. Under normal circumstances, most of our staff do most of our week in a buzzing open-plan office with 35 other people. It provides numerous advantages as we work collaboratively. Now, during lockdown, we’re isolated to our 35 individual studies/dining rooms/requisitioned spare rooms/sheds – still working together, but apart. Yet while we’re all missing each other, it’s no doubt also allowing some staff – depending on their personality – to work better than they did in the office (living situations and broadband speeds aside). While the office environment suited how I like to work, lockdown works better for an ‘introvert ideal’.

‘I’ve never felt more myself than I have in the last month,’ agreed one more introverted colleague – also decamped to her parents, and pretty much living her dream life. And (not that anyone looks their best on webcam), there was no denying that she did look… rested. Less harried by life in general. ‘My prayer life is way better than it was before, too,’ she added. If she’d been a Christian in another era, I suspect she’d have joined a convent. But having been born in 21st-century evangelicalism, she’s instead compelled to go to conventions. And those are very different.

Cain’s book is just one piece of a broader cultural preoccupation with personality types. For TGBC, a Christian book on personality types and the implications for how we do church and discipleship belongs in the category of ‘book ideas that Rachel thinks we should pursue for publication but hasn’t yet persuaded everybody else about’. (I won’t reveal what else is in that particular vault.) The – perfectly valid – argument against it is that the Bible doesn’t really say much about personality types. Whatever our preferences, we’re all called to belong to a body, build one another up, and use our gifts in the service of our Lord.

But, at the very least, the disrupted routines of lockdown (and whatever phased exit comes after it) give all of us an opportunity to grow in self-awareness. New situations reveal strengths and weaknesses, not just in our personality, but in our character. When I pick up the phone and talk to someone, is that mainly to fulfil my own desire for social contact – because I know that a phone conversation will make me feel good – rather than a desire to love the other person and build them up?

What about the way that I do ‘normal’ church life? Is my zealously full weekday schedule about pouring out my energy for the sake of others, or filling up some lack in myself?

Contrast that with another friend for whom every Sunday morning is socially draining (even if spiritually refreshing). But she seeks to pour into others Sunday by Sunday, in the power of the Spirit, because she knows that that’s what love looks like. It’s the triumph of will over feelings, and character over personality. And it’s beautiful.

So too the last few months have given some of us an opportunity to grow in empathy for others; perhaps those who feel as though they spend much of their time operating outside of their natural habitat – at work, at church, at conferences. Perhaps I’ll have my day in the sun (or the office) again before too long. But for now, this moment belongs to the introverts.

Rachel Jones

Rachel Jones is an editor at The Good Book Company and author of several books including Is This It? and Five Things to Pray in a Global Crisis.

Global famine imminent

The UN warned on 21 April that the world faces a famine of ‘biblical proportions’ over Covid-19 pandemic.

Urgent and immediate action is needed to prevent widespread famine as the pandemic worsens existing world food crises, said the head of the United Nations World Food Pro-gramme (WFP).

David Beasley, Executive Director of the WFP, told a virtual session of the UN Security Council that at least 265 million people are being pushed to the brink of starvation by the Covid-19 crisis. This is double the number under threat before the pandemic took hold.

‘We are not talking about people going to bed hungry. We are talking about extreme conditions, emergency status – people literally [on] the brink of starvation. If we don’t get food to people, people will die,’ Beasley warned.

In 2020, the world is already facing the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War due to a number of factors including the wars in Syria and Yemen, and extensive terror activity across the central Sahel countries (see map), causing tens of thousands to flee their homes. In East Africa, the worst locust plague for decades has already put as many as 70 million people at risk of acute food insecurity.

Beasley said the pandemic has moved the world into ‘unchartered territory’ where 300,000 people a day could die of starvation from the 36 countries who are in the ‘perfect storm’ for food shortages.

Photograph: iStock

Courtesy of Barnabas Fund

Our happy identity

Matt Fuller
The Good Book Company. 185 pages. £6.79
ISBN 978 1 784 982 911
Buy online from The Good Book Company 

file_2cx6bk7ninfb5y5uwyytu34hqy27iseeThe minute I finished this book I bought two copies for my sons! Being true to yourself is everyone’s dream. It’s the key to happiness. But only when you’ve worked out who you are.

Matt Fuller’s 11 chapters help us to do that. He takes us down the dead ends of the usual things that shape how we think of ourselves (like the opinion of others, or fulfilling the desires we have). He examines how we like to project ourselves in a selfie world. He does it with the wisdom that comes from much reading, and an insightful mind that comes from contact with lots of different people. The book is short and written in a style that teenagers will keep reading to the end – it makes you both think and smile!

But I bought it for my sons, who are pastors. It’ll inject wisdom into their ministry. It is sensitive. The desire to be true to yourself affects our approach to our gender identity and sexual appetites. It is hard to refute the world’s drive to self-expression in these areas. Fuller does: convincingly.

He attractively explains that to be true to yourself means knowing who God made you to be. We are image, not original. We are copies of God and you can’t say that of any other creature. He gives us our identity, and happiness comes from being true to it. This helps us to address our struggles, resist peer pressure, handle criticism, and leads to making good decisions.

We may not like ourselves, but the answer is to be amazed that God loves us – like a famous star wanting a selfie with us!

Fuller teaches the gospel by showing it answers this quest for happiness. Self-expression sounds like the route to it. But self-denial paradoxically gets us there. Self-serving sounds like the way to be satisfied. But serving others (in marriage, in church) helps us to be true to our best selves. This book shows how to invest in relationships.

Some books just do you good to read, but this one is impossible to keep; because the more who read it the better.

Mike Reith
Retired vicar who attends St.Peter’s Stapenhill (Burton).

† For help with online ordering please contact The Good Book Company directly. EN will receive a small commission for each sale.


Freedom in lockdown?

There’s a mighty argument brewing in Scotland over free speech. With a global pandemic going on, you might think the Scottish Government was too busy with its response to that to be introducing controversial new legislation. But the coronavirus has not stopped the Justice Secretary from pushing ahead with plans to remove Scotland’s old blasphemy laws and replace them with new hate crime laws.

The new Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill removes the centuries-old Scottish blasphemy laws and replaces them with new legislation.

While the abolition of the blasphemy law will make no real difference in day-to-day life (it was last used in 1843), the new offences of stirring up hatred will prove especially controversial.

The Bill also expands the list of so called ‘protected characteristics’ to include age. That list will then be as follows: age, disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, and transgender identity *.

Some will argue that we don’t want to live in a society where hatred and prejudice are on display all the time. I sympathise with this argument. There is a spectrum of views as to where we draw the line when it comes to the sort of speech that is acceptable or not. However, the concept of hate crimes and hate speech is incredibly slippery and raises far more questions than answers. At the heart of the debate is the issue about who becomes the judge of what constitutes acceptable speech?

Take the phrase ‘hate crime’. Immediately, it begs the question: what is ‘hatred’ and who defines it? Is it even possible to produce a legally workable definition?

When you add the word ‘laws’ to the phrase, it should send a shudder down our spines. For a nation to introduce hate crime laws is a very serious matter. As one Christian MSP, Murdo Fraser, has warned, the laws being proposed in Scotland would trigger a ‘full-frontal assault on free speech’.

If, as is the case in Scotland, the judge of acceptable speech ends up being the State, then that’s a far more serious proposition. The State is not neutral; it holds and evangelises various beliefs. The State in both Scotland and England holds to certain positions on issues like gender or sexuality, and it is not slow to promote those views.

The obvious point here is that evangelical Christians could end up on the wrong side of these laws. For example, under the Scottish Government’s new hate crime laws, will a Christian pastor who teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman be imprisoned? What about a Christian expressing a criticism of Islam? Or what if I say that I believe that God made humans male and female and, contrary to State wisdom, there are not 25+ genders?

The recent treatment of evangelist Franklin Graham highlights that these are not idle fears.

Historically, it is authoritarian regimes that rely on hate speech laws to suppress opposition and control the people. In many Islamic countries there are laws to prohibit negative criticisms of Mohammed. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union wanted to define hate speech. It never ends well.

We are supposed to be living in a democracy and at the heart of true democracy is the freedom to criticise, to accuse, to make criticisms of other systems of belief.

As Christians, how might we respond? Firstly, we can be honest and admit the existence of ‘hate speech’. Racism, sexism, insulting language, are all very real. And these challenges must not be minimised or ignored. James reminds us that the tongue is a ‘restless evil’ and compares it to the spark that can light a forest fire. We should, therefore, guard our tongues in recognition of the damage they can do.

Secondly, we must also acknowledge that hate speech and hate crime legislation cannot solve the real issue, which is sin in the human heart. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can deal with that. Freedom of expression means greater freedom to share the gospel. Therefore, we should champion free speech. In Scotland, the proposed law is a real danger.

So, thirdly, we must pray that MSPs see the wood for the trees and respond with effective, robust and proper scrutiny.

James Mildred

James Mildred is Head of Communications for CARE

*Editor’s Note: Sex is missing despite it being a protected characteristic in the 2010 Equality Act. The Scottish government is said to be considering how it would include ‘sex/gender’, and may introduce a specific offence of misogynistic harassment. Offences motivated by prejudice towards someone’s sex/gender are not at present considered by Scottish law to be hate crimes.

Last Word: Airbrushing

Airbrush (n.) – 1876 invention that spreads paint using air pressure which is often employed in the delicate improvement of photographs.

The noun sounds far from sinister, but its verb form is more disturbing. For in recent decades airbrushing has not merely been employed in the world of cinematography to drive unrealistic portrayals of beauty, but it has cropped up increasingly in the political arena. Dictators of the recent past airbrushing out sections of society who did not conform to Communist ideals, had been highlighted by George Orwell. But the idea that democratic Western governments could do the same (post 1984) has often been derided.

Yet, in recent weeks, we may have witnessed something similar. In late March, government officials spoke of increasing coronavirus-related deaths. At daily briefings, young doctors and nurses who had died were fittingly honoured. When our Prime Minister rose from his hospital bed we rightly cheered. Yet outside the hospital wings there was an equally grim tale untold. Thousands were dying in care homes.

Journalists eventually picked up the scent in April. But when BBC Radio 4 asked Therese Coffey, Work and Pensions Secretary, if hospital deaths were ‘just the tip of the iceberg’, she reiterated that Covid-19 death rates would be based upon hospital records alone. Her reasoning? This data is ‘quick and accurate’. There is certainly some logic to this when one considers the challenge of testing. But how hard would it have been to collect some data? Why was there seemingly such a failure to highlight care homes? Did such impoverished recording occur because ministers didn’t want to cause greater panic? Was it because they didn’t want to report higher death tolls than their European counterparts? Or was it simply because anyone over 80 can be airbrushed from the picture?

At the time, Caroline Abrahams, Director of Age Concern, responded: ‘the current figures are airbrushing older people out like they don’t matter.’ Her point was hard to argue against. On 24 April the Department of Health had recorded 22,173 deaths, yet the true figure was 29,648. Well-respected consultancy group, Candesic, suggested that more than 6,000 died in care homes in April. And, as I write, reports say that almost one third of all coronavirus deaths are happening there. The elderly have been miserably underrepresented in official statistics.

What makes such airbrushing acceptable? Sadly, modern researchers answer, because so few care if the elderly are blotted out. Dr Hannah Swift (University of Kent) published an intriguing paper just before lockdown on the very topic. There she highlighted that ageism is now rife in Britain as many see the baby-boomer generation as merely a societal burden. Accordingly, as some push for the lifting of lockdown, we hear of a younger generation speaking of coronavirus as ‘just an old person’s disease.’

Painting a better picture

So, what might God’s people do amid such times? Firstly, we should remember that local churches have opportunity to equip believers for such debates within the public square. Many Christians have the chance to redress such prejudice in their places of work. All of us are able to write to our local MPs about issues of age-related discrimination. We could, and perhaps should, pray for an emancipating modern Wilberforce to champions the cause of the octogenarians.

More realistically (and perhaps more biblically) local churches, in this season, must demonstrate that they are the alternative kingdoms of justice and love. As outposts of heaven, local churches are to demonstrate that the elderly church member is at the forefront of their minds. We are to do good to all, but the unbelieving senior should become almost jealous of the practical care and love that they see lavished upon their believing neighbours by their local churches (Gal. 6:10).

Moreover, in this season where there is every temptation for churches to airbrush out the elderly in church communication (because ‘Arthur is not on the church WhatsApp group’, or ‘Betty doesn’t know how to operate Zoom’), those in ministry must work particularly hard to include them. Assistant minsters are to pick up the phone to talk on the landline, ministry trainees are to coordinate the shopping, and if necessary the pastor is to print Sunday’s sermon and post it through the letterbox (this is my and my son’s current one-hour exercise slot for Sunday mornings).

While the UK continues to airbrush people out of society, we must not let that happen in our churches. The elderly are still those made in God’s image. They still comprise the body of Christ. And, honestly, they are not blemishes but some of the most beautiful parts of that body.

When I called one of our very elderly members, Dorothy, last week and asked how she was getting on she said: ‘I’m doing great. Bill and I pray for you every morning after breakfast. We just make our way down the list of church members and we pray for all of you.’

Dorothy might not have raised £30 million for the NHS this past month, but she is as much the Captain Tom Moore of our church. She needs to be appreciated and not airbrushed.

Stand up in the presence of the elderly and show respect for the aged. Fear your God. I am the LORD.” (Lev. 19:32)

Jonathan Worsley, Editor

Jonathan Worsley is also pastor of Kew Baptist Church, London

Photograph: iStock.

Coronavirus: The story for Africa

Though the spread of coronavirus in Africa lags behind that in Europe or the USA, a catastrophic effect is predicted, especially in townships, slums and camps, because so many live closely in already unhygienic conditions.

Most African countries are locked down and present a sad picture – daily labourers cannot get to work in the fields to harvest the food needed, so are not paid and have no food. Because food is scarce, people flout the lockdown in order to find some.

The Barnabas Fund has formed an emergency committee to monitor how coronavirus impacts around the world, assessing how best to support the vulnerable. An extensive network of partners is already in place to provide regular updates.

Partners include, among others, ten Anglican provinces, five theological institutions, GAFCON, Anglican International Development and EFAC (the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion).

An Africa-wide committee will: assist in deploying relief and assistance; gather information; make needs known; source finance and supplies; and ensure secure distribution. Its goal is to enable Christian communities to remain in existence with a working leadership that can collaborate with other bodies, local administration and governments to deliver resources, care and comfort.

Archbishop Ben Kwashi, General Secretary of GAFCON, has issued a video to encourage people to: Believe the virus can be defeated, wash their hands and stay home.

The committee will identify the priority needs and areas for the following assistance: food relief especially for those on daily wages who have no income; pastors’ salaries for those dependent on weekly tithes, since churches cannot meet; hygiene materials e.g. thousands of masks to protect health workers and others exposed to the virus.

The committee will also identify secure distribution centres for food, funds and supplies.

The international director of Barnabas Fund, the Very Revd Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, Managing Director of the committee, draws attention to the need to secure trucks and warehouses from attack, to ensure funds are released from banks, and to protect individuals carrying large amounts of cash or food, who are vulnerable.

The Barnabas Fund webpage: barnabasfund.org/en/coronavirus contains relevant information from the global network, updated project needs and news relevant to Covid-19 as they impact God’s people.